Cold War Statesmen Confront the Bomb: Nuclear Diplomacy since 1945

By John Lewis Gaddis; Philip H. Gordon et al. | Go to book overview

EPILOGUE
Duelling Counterfactuals

JOHN MUELLER

MOST of the essays in this volume defend, or seem to want to defend, a widely accepted proposition that can be called the 'Churchill counterfactual'. As reproduced in Ernest May's introduction, this proposition stresses the emergence after World War II of a 'curious paradox' and a 'sublime irony' in which, Churchill suggests, nuclear weapons vastly expanded 'the area of mortal danger' with the potential result that 'safety will become the sturdy child of terror, and survival the twin brother of annihilation'. Elsewhere, and more specifically, Churchill advanced the 'melancholy thought' that 'nothing preserves Europe from an overwhelming military attack except the devastating resources of the United States in this awful weapon'. 1

Rendered in more pointed, if less eloquent, phraseology, the Churchill counterfactual holds that if, counter to fact, nuclear weapons had not been invented, disaster was pretty much inevitable. That is, the people running world affairs after 1945 were at base so risk-acceptant, so incautious, so casual about the loss of human life, so conflagration-prone, so masochistic, so doomeager, so incompetent, and/or simply so stupid that in all probability they could not have helped plunging or being swept into a major war if the worst they could have anticipated from the exercise was merely the kind of catastrophic destruction they had so recently experienced in World War II.

As John Gaddis puts the Churchill counterfactual (but with my emphasis), at least during the Cold War nuclear weapons played 'the determining role in making great power war obsolete. In other words, without the vivid images of mushroom clouds, statesmen like those discussed in this book would likely have tumbled into another massively self-destructive war. 2 Accordingly, those of us who abhor catastrophe presumably should take the advice of Kenneth Waltz and 'thank our nuclear blessings' or, as Elspeth Rostow proposes, bestow upon it the Nobel Peace Prize. 3

To me, the opposite counterfactual seems more plausible. It suggests that if, counter to fact, nuclear weapons had not been invented, the history of world affairs would have turned out much the same as it did. Specifically, it seems to me that nuclear weapons and the horrifying image of warfare they so vividly

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